Sunday, May 31, 2009

Lawrence Lessig brings his cyber-change message to Australia

Internet law expert Lawrence Lessig says more people are making money on music today than 20 years ago because of the way digital technologies have increased diversity and availability. Speaking to the ABC on Thursday, the American academic said that while free downloading had destroyed the music companies’ business model, many artists are experimenting with different ways to succeed in their business. “It might not make record companies happy but I think that diversity is something we should be celebrating,” Lessig said.

Lawrence Lessig knows what he is talking about when it comes to copyright. He is a professor at Stanford Law School and founder of the school’s Centre for Internet and Society. He is probably also the world’s foremost academic in intellectual property law and writes a hugely influential blog. Lessig was in Brisbane on Friday to give a presentation at the Law Courts Complex in George Street. I was unable to attend due to a clashing appointment. However QUT law lecturer Peter Black was there and put out a useful summary of Lessig’s key points as a live Twitter stream at #lessigqut. In less than half an hour, Lessig covered a typically wide range of material which covered the complex relationships between money, trust, dependencies, politics and law.

The multi-talented Lessig will turn 49 on Wednesday. He has degrees in economics, management, philosophy and law from the Universities of Pennsylvania, Cambridge and Yale. Lessig said his philosophy experience at Cambridge radically changed his values and career path and turned him from a young republican into a liberal political activist. He has also served his time in the courts. Before starting his academic career, Lessig clerked for Justice Scalia of the Supreme Court and Justice Posner of the Federal Court’s 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Lessig’s abiding passion is ideas and their future in the wired world. His emphasis is on the correlation between network technologies, intellectual property laws and the free flow of information. He was greatly influenced by Julien Dibbell’s 1993 “A Rape in Cyberspace” about the breaking of online rules of identity. Lessig said Dibbell's story was “why he taught cyberlaw”.

He would go on to revolutionise cyberlaw thinking with his analysis of the premise that “code is law”. By this he meant that the architecture of the Internet could control the way it was used, which was anathema to the Net's early hyperlibertarians. Lessig showed that by controlling the hardware and software, governments could control the Internet. His fame quickly spread to other areas of modern communications. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor cited Lessig when the Supreme Court overturned the Communications Decency Act, and Judge Thomas P. Jackson asked Lessig's advice on an antitrust ruling against Microsoft Corp.

In 2008 Lessig was rewarded with the Monaco Media Prize. The prize acknowledges “innovative use of media for the betterment of humanity” and was awarded by the Monaco Media Forum, an invitation-only, non-profit conference of 300 of the world's key players in both new and "old" media. Presenting him with the award, Monaco’s Prince Albert called Lessig a pioneer. Lessig, he said, was “a peacemaker who has bravely walked into one of the most hotly contested battles of the Internet age: copyright and the whole question of the 'ownership' of content in a digital world."

However as his Brisbane speech indicates, Lessig has recently been pioneering in a more political direction. On Friday Mother Jones reported about how Lawrence Lessig’s new organisation Change Congress is aiming to expose and curtail the influence of money in politics. At Austin’s SXSW conference in March, Lessig noted how politicians desire to help their constituents was merely a means towards tenure and the lobbying required to get there erodes voters’ trust of their representatives.

Early last year there was talk that he might run as a voters' representative himself. The opportunity arose to stand for congress in the seat held by Tom Lantos, a California Democrat who died in February 2008. But the early polls were not encouraging and he left the field to a serving politician. As CNET’s Declan McCullagh wrote, Lessig would have been a principled and intelligent campaigner for copyright reform and fair use rights but voters want more from a politician than “a law prof who takes on Disney, Mickey Mouse, and the duration of copyright.” But while Lessig cannot yet make his legislative stamp match his judicial one, he remains an important power both in the courts and in cachet.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Protecting the FA Cup: the media and Australian football

The European football season is drawing to a close with tonight’s FA Cup final at Wembley between Everton and Chelsea. I say tonight as the game kicks off at midnight Brisbane time. It starts at its traditional 3pm time in London, which is about 50 minutes away as I write. The FA Cup may have lost its lustre in recent years due to the massive money poured into the Premier League and the Champions League but it still has a host of rich traditions befitting the oldest cup competition in the world. Curiously that tradition is honoured here in Australia as the cup final is one of the sporting events “protected” as a television free-to-air event until the end of 2010.

And so SBS will show the game and talk up the local angle as “our Tim Cahill” versus “Aussie” Guus Hiddinck. They delight in the fact the FA Cup sits on an anti-siphon list alongside World Cup, the Olympics, the Ashes, the Melbourne Cup, the grand finals, the Wallabies, Wimbledon, netball, and the V8s. There is something about that list that says much about Aussies, their sport, and also their debt to Britain. In many ways it is absurd that the FA Cup is on the list. How come legislation demands that English football’s second best trophy must be broadcast to 20 million while local football makes do with two million on Pay TV?

Yet it is fair to say the banishment does not seem to be doing the local competition any harm. The A-league is thriving after 4 seasons and here in Brisbane, the crowds at Suncorp for the recently renamed Brisbane Roar are catching and matching the league Broncos and the rugby Reds. Locals will flock to any successful sporting venture and as long as the Roar can afford to play in the wonderful football venue that is the revamped Lang Park, they will do well.

The state is quickly becoming a fulcrum of power in the game. The league is expanding to 10 clubs in 2009 and both newcomers are monied Queenslanders. In rugby-league mad Townsville, Don Matheson has put his cash behind the Fury and in an inspired move have brought God to North Queensland. God in this case is Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler. However Robbie Fowler performs in a Fury shirt, he has already been a success. Fowler's media coverage has been huge and the move will guarantee every Liverpool fan in North Queensland will go and watch him play. If Fowler can last half a season, the gamble will be confirmed as an overwhelming success.

Meanwhile down on the Gold Coast, Liberal National Party powerbroker Clive Palmer is financing Gold Coast United (a rare departure from American style team naming). Palmer is, or was before the recession, a billionaire who is putting together a very handy football team. Gold Coast have brought Australian international Jason Culina back from Holland to lead the team. Culina will be an integral part of Pim Verbeek’s team in the South Africa World Cup so this is a significant coup for the league. While Culina does not have Fowler’s drawing power at the gate, he has the capability to be the best player in the A-league.

While I have cringed at the continued reliance on the marquee player system, I can appreciate it serves as an economic safety salve from a salary-capped league. The clubs have a cap of $2 million in wages for 20 to 22 staff. However they may also have a 23rd player who’s salary is not counted in the $2 million. Curiously, no team may have more than four internationals (including the “marquis”) though it does not say what happens if a fifth player is capped during their stay at the club.

The system has attracted several players past their best such as Juninho and Dwight Yorke, though Yorke in particular was successful (and returned to play premiership football for Sunderland under Roy Keane). It has also attracted Australian internationals such as Craig Moore, Ned Zelic and John Aloisi with varying degrees of on-field success. But they have all added much needed lustre to the league. The A-league is working hard off the successful template of the J-league founded in 1993, it was the eleventh best attended league in the world by 2006.

Australian football could well overtake the J-League by the time it is also 13 years old. Its move into Asia opens massive investment potential overseas. It is also slowly breaking down the traditional power structures of AFL in the South and Rugby league in the north. Last week, the Sydney Morning Herald reported how football was even taking hold in remote Aboriginal communities. The Borroloola Cyclones travelled a 1000km to Darwin to play in the Arafura Games in Darwin and caused the upset of the tournament with a 4-0 win over the Northern Territory under-16s. Whitefella coach Glen Thompson noted how the natural speed of the Indigenous locals was ideal for the game. "I'll make a brave prediction … soccer will eventually overtake Aussie rules up here because it is a global game," said Thompson. "When you make the national Aussie rules team, where can you go? Ireland to play some bastardised form of the game?"

Rugby league also suffers from lack of international legitimisation with just three countries any good at it. Union has more competition but the game they play in heaven remains attached to the colonies back on Earth. Melbourne remains passionately wedded to its footy, but is not immune to the world game. The Victory are the most successful A-league team and get 50,000 to their home matches. With Pim Verbeek's national team needing just one point in three games to qualify for South Africa 2010, globalisation is marching on here in relentless fashion. Expect also the 2011 Cup Final to be siphoned off to the highest bidder, and no-one to be terribly upset. Less clear is tonight’s result and I’m going unconvincingly for Chelsea on penalties after two hours of 0-0.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Peshawar bombing: The Taliban strikes at the place of the frontier

The Pakistani city of Peshawar is on high alert after 13 people died when two bombs exploded in a market and a suicide bomber attacked a police checkpoint. Six people died and another 70 were injured when the bombs exploded in the marketplace and gunmen fired at police when they arrived on the scene. Two gunmen were shot dead. Another five died when a suicide bomber ploughed into a military checkpoint on the city outskirts killing four soldiers. Police have placed restrictions on motorist movements in the capital of North West Frontier Province which has seen a marked increase in violence in the last three weeks in response to the army's anti-Taliban operation in the nearby Swat valley.

The Peshawar attacks came just hours after the Taliban warned of countrywide attacks. The Taliban has also claimed responsibility for Wednesday devastating 500kg suicide bomb strike on the Lahore offices of Pakistan’s intelligence service ISI and the city police that killed at least 26 people and wounded 250 people. A senior police officer has confirmed a main suspect had been arrested who has links to the Taliban. Other attacks may be planned on Multan, Rawalpindi, and the capital, Islamabad. Hakimullah Mehsud, a deputy to Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, said their targets are security forces, “who are killing innocent people in Swat and other adjoining areas.”

Today, Peshawar residents told Al Jazeera people were afraid to leave their houses because of the likelihood of more violence. "Things have come to such a pass that from morning till evening there is a sense of foreboding," Shah Gul, a shopkeeper, said. "When a person leaves his house in the morning, his wife, his sister, and his parents are not sure if he will return in the evening." Others criticised the government for launching its military offensive to drive the Taliban out of the Swat valley and adjoining districts. "Our rulers should get some sense into their heads and change their policies," Mohammad Ishfaq, a local businessman, said.

The areas around Peshawar have been overrun with refugees fleeing the offensive. Between two and three million people have been displaced in Swat, Buner and Dir districts in the NWFP. Heavy fighting between Pakistan's military and Taliban insurgents has continued for the last three weeks. Although fighting has intensified in the Swat capital of Mingora, the Taliban resistance is proving resolute. The Taliban have retreated to the mountains but still hold 30 percent of Mingora. There is also concern that many of the refugees fleeing towards Peshawar may be Taliban militants.

Both sides on the war have identified Peshawar’s dominant Pashtuns as a crucial force to win over. The Pashtuns are renowned for their generosity but many are being inundated by refugees from the Swat valley. "We are poor people. Still we have given shelter to six people in my tiny, two-room house," said Farooq Khan, a shopkeeper in Rustam village, Swabi, 140km northwest of Peshawar." I cannot afford them, but it would be against Pakhtun tradition to deny shelter to anyone," he added.

The city of Peshawar was given its name by Moghul rulers in the 16th century. The name means “place of the frontier” in Farsi. It is aptly named and has long been a place that has hovered on the edge of war. It was the centre of Afghan refugees fleeing across the Khyber Pass after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and again after the US invaded in 2001. The danger is that Peshawar will now become a frontier again. The stakes for high for Islamabad. Support for the war in Swat is holding but if Peshawar becomes a regular target, then the Pashtuns may end, or even switch, their support. If that happens, Pakistan's war against the Taliban would quickly collapse with potentially disastrous consequences.

Freedom of Information session in Brisbane

I went along to a Walkley Foundation Night at the Regatta Hotel tonight to listen to four Brisbane media personalities talk about press freedom issues. The event was moderated by Cathy Border, Channel Ten’s political editor and featured ABC’s Pacific Correspondent Sean Dorney, fellow ABC journalist and state 7.30 Report producer Peter McCutcheon and The Australian’s Queensland political reporter and FOI editor Sean Parnell.

Sean Dorney began the discussion by discussing his recent experiences in being expelled from Fiji. Given that the material is similar to the ground relating to his 14 April expulsion from Fiji, which I covered in his QUT speech, I don’t propose to rehash his comments tonight. However Dorney did have a few important updates. He noted that all Fiji lawyers will be forced to re-register as of the end of June in an attempt to weed out law practitioners unsympathetic to government. Dorney said that Fijian journalists are unhappily waiting for a similar decree to come their way.

Sean Parnell spoke next. Parnell began his career as a photojournalist for The Inverell Times newspaper and then worked in radio and TV before writing for the Courier-Mail for ten years. He is now the Queensland bureau chief of The Australian and specialises in Freedom of Information (FOI) laws. Parnell lamented the gradual dumbing down of political debate and the increasingly strained relationship between politicians and journalists. He talked about the “leap of faith” required to believe the Queensland overhaul of state FOI laws will work.

Parnell lamented how the “spin cycle” made getting even simple information from governments an extraordinarily difficult task. He applauded the John Faulkner efforts at a federal level to reform the FOI laws despite the tight media management of the Rudd Government. Parnell said journalists should not rely on FOI which was “just another tool” to get information out of governments. He also noted that given the usual three month delay between making FOI requests and getting the information means that journalists need to look beyond the news cycle to determine what to request.

ABC’s Peter McCutcheon spoke next. McCutcheon agreed with Parnell that communication between politicians and journalists had deteriorated. He said that whenever he requests an off-the-record briefing on an issue, he has to wait for several weeks and even then all he gets are “weasel words” from a minister. McCutcheon also mentioned how journalists who successfully get FOI data are penalised as they only have 24 hours to use the fruit of their hard work before the same information is released to all other media. Parnell interjected to say that this is the media’s own fault. He used the example of where a media outlet FOI output turns out to be useless, but they use one damning statistic in “paragraph 340” as a lead. Parnell says governments will then deliberately reveal the entire file to show the news lead was taken out of context.

While the mix of Fijian content from Dorney did not always sit well with the FOI message from Parnell and McCutcheon, the session did highlight that Australia cannot afford to be complacent about freedom of the press. As I wrote here a few days ago, governments in Australia employ 4,000 people as part of their PR arm, outnumbering the total of journalists by a staggering four to one. No wonder then, says Peter McCutcheon, whenever he speaks to ministers, all he gets is “a tightly controlled message with not a lot of content”. The wider question then is, if messages do not carry content, what exactly is it they are conveying instead?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Rajapaksa wins the Sri Lankan war but can he win the peace?

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is currently basking in outright military victory over the Tamil Tigers, but has he got a political solution for the peace that follows? This is the question the island nation is slowly coming to terms with, after the Tigers’ military defeat was confirmed on Monday. Rajapaksa must now prosecute the peace with the same urgency with which he fought the war and convince the Tamils their interests are best served in a united Sri Lanka. It will be, in many ways, a more difficult task. While the majority in the south celebrates the end of a war that claimed 100,000 lives in 26 years, the northern minority remains sullen, resentful and suspicious. Rajapaksa himself got first hand evidence of the problem last week. When he rose to publicly acclaim victory in parliament he was faced with 20 empty seats of Tamil parties who boycotted the speech.

The president offered some reassurance to those that stayed to listen. Speaking in both Sinhalese and Tamil, Rajapaksa said the defeat of the Tigers should not be seen as a defeat for the Tamil community. He also claimed that the protection of all people, Tamils included, was his “duty and responsibility". He should now be given time to show whether he can live up to this duty and responsibility.

The west has a role to play here. The EU has demanded an inquiry into war crimes because of the high civilian casualties during the latter stages of the war. It also has the ability to withdraw lucrative preferential trade status worth $150m to Sri Lanka. But Rajapaksa will be hoping more favourable views will prevail within the commission as they did three years ago to help him win the war. In 2006 the EU froze all Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam assets in Europe. That decision was a body blow from which the rebels never properly recovered. Having once ruled almost a quarter of the country, they were gradually squeezed into a corner. Their defeat seemed inevitable from the start of this year when they were hemmed into the tiny north-east coastal jungles of Mullaitivu.

On Monday Sri Lanka's army chief, General Sarath Fonseca announced all combat operations had ended in the north of the island. Tigers’ leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and several of his senior commanders were killed in a rocket attack in the final fighting. Fearing a last stand in an area the size of New York’s Central Park, LTTE official Selvarasa Pathmanathan issued an email to Associated Press that finally told the world the Tigers had surrendered. "This battle has reached its bitter end,” wrote Pathmanathan. “It is our people who are dying now from bombs, shells, illness and hunger. We cannot permit any more harm to befall them. We remain with one last choice — to remove the last weak excuse of the enemy for killing our people. We have decided to silence our guns."

The silence of the guns caused an eruption of celebration in the south. UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon arrived in the capital Colombo on Friday in an attempt to influence Rajapaksa’s plans. Ban would have found the streets full of revellers delighted that the war was “over”. But he also knows there are 300,000 refugees in the north for whom the war is far from finished.
Ban is visiting the refugees who are spread out at dozens of massive government-run camps scattered around the north. Rajapaksa also needs to reach out quickly to these people to ensure his military victory will not be vain. He has drained the swamp of insurgents but they can easily find a new breeding ground. Rajapaksa has to quickly stop Tamils from re-grouping as a disaffected minority who could eventually begin the cycle of guerrilla war all over again.

There are some signs it is happening. Last week, Rajapaksa sent his wife Shiranthi to visit the main refugee camp at Manik Farm (which was already a city of 30,000 people by the end of April and at least twice as big today). The Sri Lankan broadcasting corporation reported Shiranthi handed over a consignment of emergency aid while “one thousand spectacles were also donated to persons with vision impairments”.

But they will need to give a lot more than spectacles for the Tamils to see the government is serious. Having Velupillai Prabhakaran out of the way helps. The 54 year old LTTE leader was an extremist who could not, or would not deal with the government. He was instrumental in introducing suicide bombing tactics such as the 1996 Central Bank in Colombo attack which killed 90 and injured more than a thousand. Prabhakaran’s death would also have been welcomed by India. He has been a wanted man there since the Tigers were implicated in the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

Yet India’s role in shaping Sri Lankan affairs remains crucial. Directly across the Palk Strait from the island live 60 million Tamils people in one of India’s most volatile and important electoral regions, Tamil Nadu. People from Tamil Nadu began migrating to Sri Lanka a thousand years ago but Indian Tamils still strongly identify with their fellow ethnics across the strait. Colombo has always baulked at Indian demands for a federal constitution in Sri Lanka but now might be the time to listen. In the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai, Janata Party president Dr Subramanian Swamy reminded Sri Lanka again this week that a federal constitution was the best way to ensure Tamil rights.

Swamy is probably right, but a constitutional change will take some time to implement. In the meantime Rajapaksa has a large laundry list of reconciliation tasks to be going on with: quickly resettling the homeless, dealing with prisoners of war, ending the repeated security checks Tamils face in their daily lives, allowing freedom of speech in the media, and holding elections in the north as soon as possible. And he must do all this while preventing further bloodshed, convincing his own army it is necessary to compromise in victory, and persuading the west to support the nation’s redevelopment instead of probing into war crimes. Tricky times lie ahead. Mahinda Rajapaksa still has a lot of work to do to ensure his reputation as the saviour of Sri Lanka.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sol Trujillo and racism in Australia

Former Telstra boss Sol Trujillo punched a hole in Australia’s fragile ego when he said had experienced racism in Australia and that working here was “like stepping back in time.” Speaking to the BBC in San Diego, Trujillo said Australia’s isolation meant it had a “different operating climate” from most countries but was slowly evolving and maturing. In the week where the “bogus bogan” Clare Werbeloff got her 15 minutes of fame by blandly talking about “fat wogs” and “skinny wogs”, it would appear that maturity is materialising very slowly.

Meanwhile Australian reaction to Trujillo’s criticism is typically thin-skinned. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s spokesperson called the statements “ridiculous” and said they will disappoint Australians who welcomed him to this country. The disappointment part may be true but are the comments really ridiculous? More ridiculous, say than Rudd’s single word reaction to Trujillo’s resignation from Telstra: “adios”, or the constant media cry of the “three amigos” that greeted Trujillo (and his two offsiders Greg Winn and Phil Burgess)? Trujillo, like Winn and Burgess, is American not Mexican, and may feel rightly aggrieved at being defined (no matter how playfully) by his heritage.

Back in March, marketing expert Dr Stephen Downes wrote an article in Crikey about Trujillo’s racial stereotyping in the media. Downes said Trujillo’s name and ethnic background became more important than his qualifications and experience. He quoted Eric Ellis who noted how cartoonists always depicted Trujillo in a sombrero astride a donkey, while shock jocks mimicked an imagined Mexican accent, even though his family came to the US 200 years ago. “Did cartoonists feel compelled to draw former CEO Ziggy Switkowski (born in Germany) in lederhosen and eating a bratwurst?” asked Downes rhetorically.

So let’s look again at what was said in Trujillo’s BBC interview. The reporter said: “I noticed reading the papers there that when you were referred to they would always point out that you were, had a Hispanic background or whatever...in Britain and in America it would have been neither here nor there. In Australia it was invariably pointed out. And the Prime Minister when asked what his parting words to you would be, he said, "Adios". Was that racism?” Trujillo responded to the last question first. “I think by definition there were even columnists that wrote stories that said it was,” he said. He then addressed the broader point: “But you know, my point is, is that you know that does exist and it's got to change because the world is full of a lot of people and most economies have to take advantage, including Australia, of a diverse set of people. And if there's a belief that only certain people are acceptable versus others, that is a sad state.”

A team at University of Western Sydney and Macquarie University have done considerable research into this “sad state” of acceptability. In 2001 they conducted a telephone survey of 5,000 people in NSW. This was backed up by a further sample of 4,000 Victorians in 2006. Overall, the researchers found that racism is quite prevalent in Australian society though its occurrences differ from place to place. If you were older, non-tertiary educated, only spoke English, were born in Australia, and were male, you were more likely to be racist.

While these findings appear to back up Trujillo, that is not to say he is beyond criticism. His time at the helm did little to halt Telstra’s slide. Shares in Telstra fell 38 per cent under his leadership, compared with a 13 per cent drop by the S&P/ASX 200 index in the same timeframe. Telstra was also excluded from the $4.7 billion original tender process to build a broadband network after it submitted a non-compliant bid and found itself further on the outer when the government announced a new company would deliver the $43b National Broadband Network. Trujillo quit his job early, leaving Australia six weeks before his publicly announced end date of 30 June.

The Australian’s former senior business correspondent Michael Sainsbury said Trujillo’s problem is one of perception. He says Trujillo did not show a lot of interest in Australia or understanding Australia. “I think that's why he's kind of got that perhaps a little bit wrong,” he told the ABC. BBY Telecoms analysts Mark McDonnell was also unsympathetic saying there was an element of jocularity about the “three amigos” jibe. “I don't think there was anything demeaning or malicious intended by it,” he said. But even if that is true, and it is debatable, it does not excuse the amount of racially motivated mocking Australians dished out to him. Sol Trujillo may not be the world’s best businessman but that does not entitle Australian politicians or the media to rob him of his dignity.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Jakaya Kikwete in the US to promote Tanzania 2.0

Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete claimed the honour last week of being the first African head of state to visit the Obama White House. Kikwete visited Washington on 22 May where he heard President Obama say the US had a “close bilateral relationship” with Tanzania. He and President Kikwete then sat down to discuss development policy in the fields of health, education, and agriculture and the pair also went through some of the more intractable problems elsewhere in Africa.

The visit is a strong endorsement of Kikwete’s regime. It is also an endorsement of Tanzanian governance as a whole which is proving one of the sturdiest in sub-Saharan Africa. The energetic 58 year old Kikwete has a busy program in the US. As well as seeing Obama, Kikwete went to Stanford University to discuss clean water projects and also went to Silicon Valley in California to talk to technology giants such as Google, IBM and Cisco.

Tanzania is moving rapidly into the technological age. In three months time it will connect the first of three undersea fibre optic cables which will link East Africa with Europe via the Indian Ocean. The $600m project is expected to lower telecoms costs by 95 percent. This will surely have a revolutionary galvanising affect on the Tanzanian economy.

The United Republic of Tanzania was founded in 1964 as the peaceful merger of two British colonies: Tanganyika and the island of Zanzibar. It went through an inevitable "necessary" stage of one party rule under Julius Nyerere before finally returning to multi-party democracy in 1992. Tanzania is one of the few African countries where the official language is not inherited from the colonial power. There is no de jure language, but Swahili is the language of the people and the parliament with only the courts to hold out speaking English. The country’s biggest problem is the scourge of corruption which still infects the body politic.

Jakaya Kikwete was elected Prime Minister with a mandate to end that corruption. He is a former army officer and an experienced politician and officer who was first elected to parliament in 1988. He was elevated to the ministry in 1990 and over the next 15 years served a long apprenticeship managing water, finance and foreign affairs. He was finally elevated to the top job when he won the 2005 election with a landslide majority taking over 80 percent of the vote.

Kikwete’s early priorities were education and technology. He wanted to reverse the brain drain of academics leaving the country. Speaking at the University of Dar es Salaam in 2006 he said “development in science and technology is not only an important determinant of a country’s socio-economic development, but enhances the country’s international competitiveness and its position in the world economy.” While critics are not happy about the pace of his promised 'agricultural revolution', his Silicon Valley meetings show his seriousness in attempt to engage with the problems of technology.

Australian blogger and tech writer Stilgherrian will get the chance to see first hand just how far Kikwete’s technological revolution is kicking in. He has been sponsored by aid agency ActionAid Australia to establish a blog outpost in the local community and train them up in best-practice blogging. There is already a blogging community in the country that Stilgherrian may be able to tap into. As Issa Michuzi’s blog notes: although Tanzania still languishes in the list of least-developed nations, it is a country is endowed with abundant natural resources that are almost unparalleled in the African continent. As Jakaya Kikwete is intent on showing, the chief among those resources are its people.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Understanding the Australian PR state

The Australian Federal Government is rightly getting a lot of flak at the moment for the extraordinary tightness of its media management. The budget came and went without Treasurer Wayne Swan announcing the actual deficit size for fear of giving the Opposition an advertising grab. Just last Tuesday, Kevin Rudd appeared on ABC Lateline and steadfastly refused to attach the word “billion” to the dollar amount of the deficit. Interviewer Tony Jones asked him: “Is there a political spin rule which says the Prime Minister must not say that figure?” Rudd fudged a reply but the answer is undoubtedly yes. The spin rule emerged from the heart of the massive Australian public relations state. Kevin Rudd is certainly the most aware Prime Minister yet about the power of marketing a carefully crafted media message. However, it not just about Rudd’s obsessive media management. Public relations has long been part of the institutional framework of government. This post uses research by political scientist Ian Ward to deconstruct the various components of the Australia PR state.

In their important 1994 study of the UK poll tax “Taxation and Representation”, Deacon and Golding noted how the marketing of government activity had become “a central activity of modern statecraft”. The pair said there had been a massive expansion of the public relations state in the previous 20 years with extensive use of media advisers and communications professionals to promote policy and outmanoeuvre opponents. What had occurred was the institutionalisation of PR within government well beyond the traditional remit of election campaigning.

Governments learned the lesson the hard way from media that they needed to play a strategic role in promoting a particular policy solution. They began to leverage off the natural advantages governments have in order to control the public conversation on political issues. As a result, they began to use advertising, marketing and public relations campaigns to sell policies and to integrate the communication activities of the various PR arms and agencies.

In 2003 Ian Ward used Deacon and Golding’s model to study the Australian PR state (pdf). Ward found the Australian framework was dominated by four features. These were 1) media minders 2) media units to coordinate media relations and monitor news coverage 3) public affairs sections belonging to government departments and 4) integrating instruments that provide “whole of government” coordination of promotional activities.

The media minder is the oldest of the four strategies. The first government press secretary was appointed in 1918 and by the 1930s it was established practice for prime ministers to recruit an experienced journalist to write speeches and press releases. Over time other senior ministers got their own minders and under Whitlam all ministers had a press secretary. Now relabelled as media advisers, they have evolved to provide strategic advice to ministers on how best to manage political news with overall responsibility to portray the government in the best possible light.

Ward illustrated his argument with the 2001 example of Defence Ministry press secretary Ross Hampton. During Operation Relex (the children overboard affair), the department was besieged with media enquiries. Defence Minister Peter Reith ordered that defence personnel were forbidden to talk to the media and all enquiries had to be dealt with by Hampton. The aim was to ensure that coverage of the affair was always couched in terms favourable to the government and every statement was “on message”. Hampton had a dedicated phone line to Defence public affairs. Driven by the daily news cycle, he would ring them 10 to 15 times a day and get absolute priority. It was his job then to spin whatever comment, report and pictures Defence gave him. According to Ward, Hampton served on the front line of the Australian PR state.

The second flank is the media unit. Under the 1984 Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, governments can employ and assign media advisers as they see fit. This allowed them to create media units for gathering and disseminating information. The Hawke/Keating government set up the infamous National Media Liaison Service which the Press Gallery dubbed as the “aNiMaLS” in testimony both to the acronym and the group’s aggressive promotion of the government. The Howard government replaced the aNiMaLS with the toned down Government Member’s Secretariat (GMS) but the nature of the role remained the same: pumping out party propaganda.

Whatever the name, the media unit consists of over 20 former journalists helping governments publicise policy. While many are farmed out to junior ministers, they work closely with the Prime Minister’s office and routinely supply ministers with transcripts of opposition media interviews. They also provide media training, prepare news letters and issue political pamphlets that cross the border into campaigning activities which are beyond the boundaries of taxpayer-funded staff. As Ward says, the media unit has become an indispensable feature of the Australian PR state.

The third aspect is the departmentally-based public affairs section. Every government department has one and they vary in size and importance. These staff are public servants and supposedly do not fulfil a party political function. However Ward says it is difficult to imagine that the government of the day do not benefit from departmental PR programs that promote its policies. Through this mechanism governments can carry out public communication campaigns, commission polling, or contract ad firms to promote policy decisions. The Howard Government in particularly was notorious for the size of its ad budget including the “alert not alarmed” fridge magnet campaign, the private health insurance campaign and the unlamented Workchoices campaign. According to an Australian National Audit Office report (pdf) released in March this year, the Coalition spent $1.8 billion in advertising during its 12 years in power.

The final part of the government PR jigsaw is whole of government coordination of the first three arms. In 1982 the Fraser Government established the Ministerial Committee on Government Communications to ensure all information campaigns conformed to government priorities. The politically-controlled MCGC oversees all sensitive communications, approves major strategies, and vets the hiring of PR, advertising, marketing and research consultancies. Contracts are usually awarded to favoured party pollsters such as Hawker-Britten for Labor or Crosby Textor for the Coalition.

About 4,000 journalists were working for Australian state and Commonwealth governments in a public relations capacity in 2002. The number has probably gone up since then. Yet despite knowing the broad features of the apparatus we know surprisingly little about the detailed operation of the Australian PR state. Even the government acknowledges this. When Julia Gillard introduced the National Audit report to parliament in March she talked about “the shadowy work” of the MCGC. The field is crying out for research to drag it out of the shadows. As Ian Ward concludes “there remains a sizeable gap in our understanding of political communication in Australia”. This cannot be good for Australian democracy.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Aung San Suu Kyi: death by the tatmadaw’s thousand cuts

Burmese military have banned media and diplomats from attending the farcical trial of Aung San Suu Kyi who is charged with breaking the terms of her house arrest. The move is the latest in a string of outrageous measures to shut down the greatest thorn in the military's dictatorial side. An American Mormon named John Yettaw gave them the excuse when he was caught spending two days at her house after he swam across the lake to visit her last week. Authorities seized the opportunity to charge the Nobel Peace Prize winner with violating the terms of her house arrest. She and her housekeepers could be jailed for five years (Yettaw himself faces six). On the third day of the “trial” yesterday, the government allowed outsiders observe her in court. Pictures of Suu Kyi in good health appeared on Burmese TV and newspapers. But censorship resumed today and the prospects are not good for the 63 year old woman. Aung San Suu Kyi has now spent 13 of her last 19 years in detention since she won Burma’s last democratic election in 1990.

The irony is that the tatmadaw (Burmese military) was the beloved creation of her father Aung San. He was not just her father; Aung Sun was a war-hero and the father of Burmese independence. The date of his 1947 assassination by political enemies is still preserved as a sombre holiday in Burma. The room in the government building where he was shot is now a shrine.

His aura was used to good effect by the Ne Win military administration after the 1962 army coup. But commemorations have been drastically reduced after the SLORC junta declared his daughter’s NLD party electoral victory invalid in 1990. Since then photos of Aung San have disappeared from public circulation and he is rarely quoted in the press. By downgrading his image, the army also attempted to eliminate the nationalistic identity of his daughter.

Aung San Suu Kyi was born two years before her father’s assassination. Burma became independent from Britain a year after his death. In 1956, the 11 year old girl was enrolled at Rangoon’s Methodist English High School. Here she met children from Burma’s best families and topped her class. In 1960 her mother was appointed Burmese ambassador to India and the family moved to New Delhi where they lived for the next three years. In 1962 General Ne Win launched a coup against the democratic government and Burma began to shut its doors on the rest of the world and descend into poverty.

Safe in India, Suu Kyi studied there until 1964 before enrolling at Oxford to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics and graduated with a BA in 1967. She went to work for the UN in New York before returning to Oxford in 1972 where she married the Himalayan studies academic Michael Aris. They had two sons. Though Burma was never far from her mind, it seemed she would never return there.

Her life was changed forever in March 1988 when she got a phone call to say her mother was ill in Rangoon after a severe stroke. Suu Kyi began to pack at once. Arriving home in April she found life in Burma had changed very much for the worse since she left as a child. The country that used to be the rice basket of Asia now could not feed itself.

A protest movement was growing against the tatmadaw and her status as Aung San’s daughter meant she was a natural focus of opposition attention. In August she addressed a mass rally at Burma’s most prominent shrine, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. A half million people gathered to hear her speak. She quietly told them she supported multi-party democracy and called for a minute’s silence to honour those who had died in the struggle. She spoke not of vengeance but of reconciliation and healing.

Suu Kyi’s eerie performance electrified the crowd and touched a raw Burmese nerve. Her mother died in December 1988 and huge crowds lined the streets in her honour. When the SLORC surprisingly called an election for 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi was the obvious choice to lead the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). Embolded by the scale of her support, she threw caution to the wind and denounced Ne Win's government. This was the excuse the army needed to lock her up and they placed her under house arrest. She was still in jail when she heard the news she had won the election. It was a landslide, the NPD won 392 of the 485 seats. The army were horrified and renounced the results, There were bland claims that the NPD was manipulated by outlawed Communist parties and interfering foreign embassies.

Having re-established control, the tatmadaw crushed all internal opposition to its political and economic power. They arrested all the opposition leaders and destroyed most of the NLD's political infrastructure. But what they left was Aung San Suu Kyi, she was a powerful figurehead in jail whom the government knew they could not martyr. And foreign media got interested. Aung San Suu Kyi was an attractive, poignant and brave victim ready made for Western media consumption.

But SLORC ignored all appeals from the US and the UN for her release. Scandinavia showed its support for the prisoner by awarding her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. The committee said she was “one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades…She has become an important symbol of the struggle against oppression [using] non-violent means to resist a regime characterised by brutality”. Her son Alexander accepted the award in Oslo on her behalf. Though Burmese media ignored the ceremony, most people found out through radio broadcasts from abroad. Demonstrations broke out at the University of Rangoon in support of her, but were ruthlessly suppressed by the government.

In 1995 Suu Kyi was released from house arrest under pressure from Japan which threatened to withhold aid. But if the Burmese government thought that release had bought her compliance, they were drastically mistaken. She quickly reorganised the opposition and held gateside meetings every Sunday outside her house to large crowds. In return, the Burmese media continued its relentless attacks against her. The tatmadaw stymied her attempts to visit local party chapters, occasionally leaving her stranded in the countryside or at Rangoon train station ahead of planned monster meetings.

In 1999, the SLORC (now renamed SPDC) refused a Burmese visa for Suu Kyi’s British husband Michael Aris who was terminally ill with cancer back in Oxford. Because Suu Kyi could not trust the government to let her back in the country if she visited him, she did not see him again before he died. She was re-placed under house arrest between 2000 for another two years, and after twelve months free, they arrested her again in 2003. Since then, the government have found excuses to extend the detention on a yearly basis despite it being against Burmese law to confine someone for five years without a charge.

Just before Yettaw made his fateful swim across the lake last week, Suu Kyi was treated at home for low blood pressure and dehydration. While she was believed to be recovering, she could not get access to her usual doctor who had been detained for questioning. Her subsequent detention in Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison could have done little for her health. It is not difficult to believe that Burmese authorities are imposing the equivalent of death sentences by a thousand cuts on one of the world’s most courageous leaders.

@Media140: Twitter continues inexorable rise

TechCrunch announced yesterday Twitter got 32 million unique visits last month while on the same day London held its first microblogging conference. While unrelated, the two events confirm the phenomenal rise of Twitter. What began in October 2006 as a San Francisco-based 10-person start-up called Obvious, now gets more monthly unique visitors than big players including Digg (23 million), LinkedIn (16 million), and the NYTimes.com (17.5 million). And the 32 million figure does not count millions more who send and read tweets via phones, desktop apps, or other websites.

Known as Media 140, the South Bank conference met to discuss why this rising star was taking over the world 140 characters at a time. There, among others, were The Guardian’s blogs editor Kevin Anderson, Sky News Online senior editor Jon Gripton and TechCrunch’s own editor Mike Butcher.

The key to Twitter is speed. Following on from regular blogging, microblogging fulfils a need for an even faster mode of communication. The shorter posts lower users’ requirement of time and thought investment. As Pew Internet pointed out in February, the ways in people use the technology, reveals their affinity for mobile, untethered and social opportunities for interaction.

There would have been plenty of untethered opportunities for networking and hangovers yesterday but @media140 also saw a lot of good discussion about where this upstart media is taking us. Sky's Gripton says his company now employs a Twitter correspondent as they acknowledge the tool to be an effective news feed. However Mike Butcher and tech writer Bill Thompson baulked at describing Twitter purely as a journalistic device. "The difference to PA [Press Association] and Twitter is the difference to looking at a newspaper front page and the ocean,” Butcher said. Thompson went further and compared journalists to parasites who viewed Twitter as "just there to serve our needs".

Digital journalist Joanna Geary was on a panel where the conflict of those needs came up. The question “how do local newspapers make money” kept cropping up to the panel. It was, granted, a hugely important question for the industry. But Geary saw the problem differently. When money is taken out of the equation she says, what we crave most are four things: satisfying work, being good at something, spending time with people we like, and being part of something bigger. Geary says that by thinking about problems with these four goals in mind, interesting solutions begin to emerge. She admitted she hadn’t fully thought out how this would happen. “[B]ut it seems to me,” she wrote today, “that this is a better line of enquiry to follow if we want to make local news more relevant to consumers.” It also seems more relevant for Twitter itself.

This is also the line of enquiry followed by Courtney Honeycutt and Susan Herring. Honeycutt and Herring are Indian University researchers who theorise that Twitter is being taken over by conversational interaction and collaboration. The pair note how the @ (at-sign) in Twitter has created a convention for conversation or as they called it “a marker of addressivity”. Although the central question Twitter itself asks its users is “what are you doing?”, Herring and Honeycutt found that 58 percent of Tweets do not answer that question.

It must be questionable if Twitter can cope when more than half its users do not follow the “guidance note” provided by the question. Yet these other uses are clearly driving phenomenal traffic to the tool. So far, the scalability of the “Ruby on Rails” built application is certainly formidable. It carries 26 times as much traffic as it did this time last year. But it is safe to assume the numbers will get much higher yet before they stabilise so there remains plenty of technical work for it to survive Peak Twitter.

(Picture credit:Sizemore at Flickr). In the meantime, as Media 140 confirms, Twitter has become a crucial part of the journalists arsenal. Conference attendee Kevin Anderson quoted writer Pat Kane highlighting some of the ways in which journalists were using the tool. They included beat reporting, watching how local communities decide what is news, real time content and photos, traceable leads and sources, information gathering, promotional, and archiving of expertise. But Kane also recognised the drawbacks: the balkanisation of truth, the 140 character design limitation, and the lack of collaboration. If true, that latter one seems to be a fault of the journalists rather than the tool. And interesting Kane was one of the few attendees to protect his Twitter updates.

Hopefully conferences like Media140 are doing their bit to correct the lack of collaboration. As for balkanisation, I'm not sure about turning the truth into Yugoslavia again, and I certainly believe the 140 character limitation is not a limitation but of one Twitter's main creative juices. It encourages ruthless succinctness. Everything from 141 characters onwards is a macroblog. Anyway, the next major Twitter event to watch for is Jeff Pulver’s #140conf in New York in mid June.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Brisbane floods: Kedron Brook goes berserk

Wild weather in Brisbane at the moment with torrential rain, flash flooding, landslides, blackouts and the closure of schools and roads. About 160 to 240mm of rain has fallen in the Northern suburbs in the last 24 hours. This is how Kedron Brook (about 1km north of where I live) normally looks:

This is the same view today:

This is the Brook from the bridge in Lutwyche at Bradshaw Rd.:

Here is the flooded bike path linking Wooloowin and Gordon Park. I wouldn't fancy my chances getting across:
This is the view looking upstream from Gympie Road. Trees are being dragged along very quickly in the floodwaters:
Not much happening today on the roadworks for the Airport Link at Gympie Rd:
This is the view downstream of Gympie Rd:
Shaw Road linking Wavell Heights to the south is totally cut off:
Match abandoned at Shaw Rd rugby grounds:
This car on Shaw Road didn't make it:
But this driver in Kalinga Park still fancies his chances:
He'll have his work cut out to get much further. Kalinga Park has turned into a lake:
Not sure about the vaulting, but its not a bad day for a body dip:
The airport train glides over the floods at Sandgate Road:
The back carpark at Toombul shopping centre (note how high the waters are to sign saying "clearance 4.2m"):
Toombul shopping centre and Airport Link offices getting a bit wet in the deluge:
One to file under "No shit, Sherlock?"

And the weather bureau is predicting more of the same until the weekend. See the Courier-Mail gallery for a wider set of Brisbane flood photos.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Australian Press Council losing friends and not influencing people

Australian broadcasters have reacted coolly to the Australian Press Council’s proposal to expand its remit to regulate broadcast and digital media. Margaret Warner, the head of peak body Commercial Radio Australia said her industry already has a government regulator and does not need any assistance from the press watchdog. Meanwhile, ABC boss Mark Scott has also rejected a role for APC in monitoring the public broadcaster, claiming the council was deficient in its complaints procedures. "The council's workings are opaque and its judgments given precious little display," Scott said last month. "It has no power to order corrections."

The rejections complete a bad week for the publisher-funded body. Last Monday The Australian announced the APC was facing the loss of one third of its budget and the biggest structural shake-up in its history. The publishers which finance the council (including News Limited, Fairfax Media and APN News & Media) issued a joint submission which propose major changes to its membership and functions to cope with the proposed cuts. The publishers will slash industry contributions to the council from $880,000 this financial year to less than $600,000 in 2009-2010. The cuts are required, say the publishers, because of a mix of the global financial crisis and so-called “structural problems” (presumably, collapsing revenue) in the industry itself.

In response, Press Council member Alan Kennedy made a counter-proposal to expand the organisation's remit in an article published on the journalists’ union site Alliance Online last Thursday. Kennedy called for an expansion to give the council unfettered right to police online news sites, television and radio news. The downside is that the new members would have to fund the council pro rata, but in return would gain credibility for the quality of their products. He said that slashing funds would seriously hamper the APC’s “vital work” in handling ethics complaints and lobbying Government on press freedom issues. However, he acknowledged the model under which publishers funded a percentage based on circulation is flawed and needs to change.

Kennedy said the council’s main selling point was turnaround time. He described the procedures of Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), which regulates the broadcasting industry, as “prescribed and clunky” While ACMA can take six months to make a complaints decision, the APC usually gets a judgement out in six weeks or under. This is because complainants must waive their legal rights when they engage the APC and therefore lawyers are not involved. An win at the Australian Press Council entitles the complaint only to a public apology.

The APC was established in 1976 with two main aims. These were to help maintain the traditional freedom of the press and ensure the press acts responsibly and ethically. At the time, the press barons were worried the government might try to licence newspapers if there was no self-regulation. The APC has grown into the role. It has made over 1,400 adjudications and now sees itself as a bastion of a free press. Their annual State of the News Print Media publication is an important document that looks at key trends and issues that affect newsprint in Australia.

The council has 22 members comprising of ten public members, ten members from the publishers, and two independent journalists. This panel currently deal with 400 to 500 complaints annually. About 90 percent of these complaints are successfully dealt with by mediation using sub-panels and the other ten percent go to the full committee. About 47.5 percent of complaints were upheld last year. As I heard Press council member Adrian McGregor say today, the APC's ability to deal with such a large number will be severely compromised by the massive drop in budget.

It is a shame then that other media will not subscribe to the service. The “get-your-tanks-off-our-lawn” message (as Mumbrella neatly put it) from Commercial Radio Australia and the ABC is unhelpful. Given that many media complainants simply want an apology, explanation or an acknowledgement, the APC's version of the ombudsman provides a useful means of getting a cheap, quick and fair result.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Time to get rid of Queensland’s faulty fuel subsidy

In a rare outbreak of policy sense, Premier Anna Bligh signalled yesterday that Queensland's eight cents a litre fuel subsidy could be finally be scrapped in June’s state budget. In the 21st century it defies belief that any government would subsidise petrol prices. Yet the Bligh Government had repeatedly assured the scheme would be protected during the election campaign to avoid being wedged on the issue by the Opposition. Now that the election is safely behind her, Bligh is looking for options to get out of that commitment. She said that although she wanted to keep every election promise, her overriding promise was to protect jobs. "To do that we've got to look at some pretty tough decisions and right now everything is on the table,” she said. “That means things like the fuel subsidy have to be considered."

The government may have been encouraged by an editorial in the Courier-Mail in January (incidentally, well before the election) which called the subsidy a luxury Queensland cannot afford. However, the usual vested interests have come out against scrapping the subsidy. Nick Behrens of the Queensland Chamber of Commerce and Industry says Queensland businesses will lose their competitive advantage while Agforce president John Cotter says people living in rural areas would be hit hard if it was removed. Opposition Leader John-Paul Langbroek somewhat bizarrely described the subsidy as a "core service" and claimed losing it would cost Queenslanders $250 to $300 a year on average. And RACQ general manager Gary Fites also weighed in saying "fuel prices will rise by nine cents a litre if the government wants to remove the subsidy.”

Fites is exaggerating but the chorus of opposition shows the difficulty Bligh will have to overcome to abolish the subsidy. Andrew Bartlett says the state government is dealing with the dilemma of dealing with bad policy that is electorally popular. Bartlett says the $600 million a year scheme is an “absurd, expensive program” however, he also says we only have ourselves to blame: “[We often call] for strong action while opposing anything that we feel will make us personally worse off,” says Bartlett “If more people were prepared to speak out in support of good policies that we know are unpopular, it might slightly reduce the need for governments to make quite so many of those promises in the first place.”

This particular promise dates back to the Borbidge coalition government in 1997. They introduced the subsidy after a federal High Court decision prevented the states and territories from collecting business franchise fees on fuel, tobacco and alcohol. In response the Howard Government imposed a surcharge of 8.1 cents per litre on the rate of customs and excise duty and returned surcharge revenue to states and territories. Because Queensland never had a fuel tax, the state government reached an agreement with the Commonwealth and the fuel industry to provide an 8.534c a litre subsidy for retailers to pass the benefit to consumers.

However, inquiries have found that the whole eight cents is not fully passed on to the motorist. In 2007 a Commission of Inquiry led by Bill Pincus (note: the actual report has been moved from the Queensland Government web site and is not available at the time of writing) found that the fuel subsidisation was deeply flawed and conflicted with policies to lower transport greenhouse gases. He also found more than $100 million a year of the $541 million scheme was not being passed on to motorists. Pincus found no evidence of criminal behaviour. "In the main, the subsidy was simply regarded as a component of the cost of fuel and was otherwise disregarded," he said in the report. He recommended the laws be repealed or else incorporate a provision to publish "reference prices".

Neither recommendation went anywhere. In June 2008 the Bligh government considered a plan where drivers would swipe a bar code on their licence at the point of sale to receive the full subsidy. But no one seemed happy about this idea. Civil libertarians warned of privacy concerns. Transport workers thought that interstate truck drivers would suffer while tourist operators said the scheme would deter holidaymakers. Pincus also came out against it saying retailers would simply raise their prices to maintain profit margins.

Given the political difficulties of removing the scheme entirely, perhaps the most palatable proposal is that of economist John Quiggin’s which has been endorsed by the RACQ. Quiggin suggests the government gradually phase-out the subsidy over four to five years and redeploy the savings to service borrowings to fund road and public transport infrastructure. The annual reduction in the subsidy would be 1.6708 cents per litre with consequent fuel price increases of about 1.84 cents per litre per year. Each cut would release about $100 million to service borrowings for additional road and public transport infrastructure. This amount would also repay debt of $1,000 million over a term of 15 years at an interest rate of 6 per cent. Perhaps most importantly, this “death of a thousand cuts” for the subsidy would result in the least amount of electoral (and media) pain.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Two new papers support Homo floresiensis as new species

Two new research paper published by Nature last week support the evidence that the so-called Indonesian “hobbit” skeletons belong to a separate human species. Homo floresiensis arrived on the island of Flores in the Lesser Sunda Islands a million years ago and lasted until they were probably wiped out by a volcano 10,000 years ago. Scientists have been unable to agree on the characterisation of the hobbit because although its brain is tiny, it has developed complex tools. The two new papers corroborate evidence to suggest they are a new species and not modern humans with abnormally small brains.

The first Nature paper says the feet of recently discovered miniature hominins found on Flores have a combination of human and more primitive features. An analysis of a Homo floresiensis fossil shows the dwarf-like creature walked in a different way from modern humans. The research does not take a definitive position on whether h. floresiensis is a new species or not. However the shape of the foot’s navicular bone similar to those of great apes, which means that they lacked an arch and were not efficient long-term runners. "Arches are the hallmark of a modern human foot," says William Harcourt-Smith, one of the paper’s authors. "This is another strong piece of the evidence that the 'hobbit' was not like us."

The research backs up similar findings about the fossil’s skull announced in January. The skull’s uneven shape was compared to modern humans and apes, as well as the fossil brain cases of early human ancestors. Karen Baab, a biological anthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York State said the unevenness was due to fossilisation. "The shape of the skull is consistent with what we would expect for a small archaic Homo," she said.

However, some scientists remain sceptical about the controversial find. Robert Eckhardt is a professor of developmental genetics and evolutionary morphology in the kinesiology department at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of a 2006 paper which concluded the shape of the skull represented “developmental abnormality." Eckhardt’s concern is the fossil’s tiny brain. "If it was three million years old, it wouldn't be a problem,” he said. “The problem is it is only 18,000 years old and it sticks out like a sore thumb."

A thumb is an accurate simile for the one meter tall Homo floresiensis. The first fossil was discovered at Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003. It had human-like teeth with a receding forehead and no chin. The fossil was deemed to be somewhere between 38,000 and 18,000 years old. Archaeological evidence in the area found more bones from other individuals dating from 95,000 and 13,000 years ago. The first (and most complete) find was fully bipedal with a very small brain size of 417cc. It is this last statistic that causes most angst in scientific circles. It is similar to chimpanzees but only about one third the size of modern human brains.

But the second paper in last week’s “Nature” may have an answer to that puzzle too. An American Museum of Natural History study showed that dwarf mammals that live on islands evolved much smaller brains in relation to their body size than those on continental landmasses. The study looked at extinct pygmy hippos that lived on Madagascar and found their brain mass was 30 percent less than similar species on mainland Africa. Natural History Museum palaeontologist, Dr Eleanor Weston, says it may be advantageous to have smaller brains on isolated islands. “The brain is a costly organ that uses a lot of energy,” she said. "Whatever the explanation for the tiny brain of floresiensis relative to its body size, it’s likely that the fact that it lived on an island played a significant part in its evolution.”

It was long believed that no humans arrived on the isolated island of Flores until relative recent times (about 11,000 years ago) when homo sapiens arrived on boats. However in the 1960s a priest and part-time archaeologist Theodor Verhoeven found signs of a much earlier human presence. In the Soa Basin he found stone artefacts near stegodont (elephant ancestors) fossils, he said were around 750,000 years old. In the 1990s his claims were backed up when tools were dated and found to be 840,000 years old.

But no-one could find remains of actual humans until the first hobbit was found in Liang Bua which means "cool cave" in the local Manggarai language. The finders took the bones back to Jakarta where Peter Brown, a paleoanthropologist from Armidale’s University of New England, supervised cleaning, conservation, and analysis. The pelvic structure told him the bones were from a female. Brown soon realised he was dealing with an entirely new human species: Homo floresiensis. "To find that as recently as perhaps 13,000 years ago, there was another upright, bipedal…creature walking the planet at the same time as modern humans is as exciting as it was unexpected," he said. This find will keep on giving to science for many years to come. The challenge will now to find out how widespread the hobbits were and whether they came into contact with homo sapiens.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Guatemala Twitter arrest brings local scandal to wider audience

A Guatemalan man has been placed under house arrest for sending a Twitter message that incited “financial panic” last week. Police arrested 37 year old Jean Anleu Fernandez last Tuesday but released him on bail overnight on condition he remains at home. Fernandez’s employer put up a loan for the $6500 fine ordered by a Guatemalan judge and his supporters are collecting PayPal donations to repay it. A new video released shows him still tweeting while in handcuffs.

Fernandez tweets under the label @jeanfer and last week he urged people in Guatemala to boycott a bank in the aftermath of a political scandal. He was arrested at home in the capital Guatemala City and had his computer seized after tweeting (in Spanish) that people should withdraw cash from Banrural and “break the bank of the corrupt”. Fernandez tagged the message with '#escandalogt' which refers to the alleged murder of prominent lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg.

Rosenberg was shot dead last Sunday while riding his bicycle in Guatemala City. On Monday, he appeared in a youtube video in which he accused President Alvaro Colom, his wife and his personal secretary of ordering his own death. "If at this moment you are hearing or watching this message, it is because Alvaro Colom assassinated me,” said Rosenberg in the video. Rosenberg also accused Colom of Khalil Musa, a Guatemalan industrialist who was shot dead with his adult daughter a month ago. Musa was Rosenberg’s client.

Musa had been appointed by President Colom to the board of Banrural (the subject of Fernandez’s tweet) a partly state-run bank. In the video Rosenberg said Musa was killed because he refused to co-operate in corrupt Banrural (Rural Bank) business deals. President Colom has claimed he is “incapable” of ordering the murder and has asked overseas agencies to aid the investigation. Colom has invited the UN and the FBI to investigate the affair.

The US has confirmed the FBI have been asked to assist and authorities have also spoken to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN panel set up in 2007 to clean up corruption in the country. "I don't know the motives Rodigro Rosenberg had to film that tape but if you see those who were involved in filming the tape you understand who they are...they are destabilisers,” said Colom.

Hundreds of people have taken to streets of the capital this week protesting Rosenberg's death and demanding Colom's resignation. So far the president is unmoved. He told Al Jazeera he had no intention of stepping down over the matter. “The people of Guatemala have the right to protest and ask for justice ... but be careful of crossing the line," he said. He also won support from the Washington-based Organisation of American States (OAS) which passed a resolution on Wednesday approving support for Colom’s administration "in its obligation to preserve the institutions of democracy and the rule of law".

Álvaro Colom is a centre-leftist who won the election in 2007, taking office in January 2008. His main priority has been to address the tragic legacy left by the country’s 36 year civil war internal conflict, which killed close to a quarter of a million Guatemalans and ended only with the 1996 UN-brokered peace accords. In March he opened military archives to aid lawyers in a case against a former Guatemalan dictator for genocide and the government is collecting statements from war victims for future criminal cases against army and police officials accused of abuses during the war.

But the Rosenberg allegations represent Colom’s biggest test in office. The lawyer claimed Colom and his associates dragged his client Khalil Musa into a corruption scam involving Banrural, a rural development bank. The head of the banking system, Genaro Pacheco, said Fernandez admitted sending the tweet about Banrural. Inciting financial panic is an offence in Guatemala. He will be held under house arrest pending trial.

Fernandez's arrest has angered many bloggers and has spawned several campaigns of solidarity, including the collection of donations to pay for the fine. Many people are unconvinced his tweet could have produced the panic claimed by the government. Blogger Jorge Mota asks why the authorities could move so quickly on a case like this, but the more serious accusation from the Rosenberg video has yet to receive the same treatment. "One gets incriminated for murder by a video and one can deny everything, and of course the country's impunity protects," said Moto. "But one makes a comment on Twitter, and is arrested."